“Look around at the women you’re with, think of those who you cherish in your life, your families and in your communities and understand that there’s a statistical likelihood many of them have experienced violence in their lives. Even more have comforted a sister or a friend who has shared their anger or grief following an attack. This International Women’s Day, we must convert our outrage into action,” said Dee Aker, interim executive director for the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice (IPJ), repeating an excerpt from a recent speech by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.
The IPJ hosted its ninth annual International Women’s Day breakfast Wednesday, bringing together a packed audience of women from community organizations and foundations, women and men who represent the University of San Diego and keynote speaker Leymah Gbowee, the 2011 Nobel Peace Laureate and Liberian peace activist, social worker and women’s rights advocate.
The 57th Session of the U.N.’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is concluding a nearly two-week run in New York and its focus has been on the elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls.
“We do need to be absolutely clear that this is an epidemic,” said Jennifer Freeman, IPJ Women PeaceMakers Program officer and part of IPJ’s delegation that presented a panel at the CSW. “The statistic is one in three women and as it was said before, look around you and that will show you how small that really is.”
The clear objective of the CSW is to seek a formal commitment on measures that take real steps to end the violence globally. Freeman spoke of individual cases she heard there that foster hope for substantial changes, but until something’s done, it remains just hope.
“Despite progress, for those who’ve been watching, the lack of an agreed conclusion … is stalling our urgent call for policy makers to address this wave of violence that affects more women between ages 15 and 44 than war, car accidents, cancer and malaria combined,” she said. “Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are universal. That’s the issue at stake at this year’s CSW and for the lives of women experiencing violence around the globe that we must all fight for.”
Gbowee is most certainly a fighter. The mother of six children, ages 3 to 20, she’s best known for leading a nonviolent movement that brought Christian and Muslim women together in the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. This action helped to end Liberia’s 14-year civil war in 2003 and marked the start of a new wave of women who’ve emerged globally as effective participants in brokering lasting peace and security. Gbowee, who was also Kroc Distinguished Lecture Series speaker Wednesday night at USD, is featured in the documentary film, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” and she’s written her memoir, Mighty Be Our Powers.
Her peacemaking abilities and commitment to women’s issues, particularly her straightforward awareness approach to the issue of violence against women is unwavering. Her tactics to get her message out, though, has changed. She skipped this year’s CSW, she said, to forge a more necessary path to achieve awareness and understanding.
“What can I do? What practical things can we do? This is where I find myself now,” she said, citing unhappiness with past CSWs that raised her hopes, only to result in disappointment. “What can we do here in San Diego as women to end the violence against women? Being here I’m talking to the converted. This is a group of sympathizers. Everyone in this room understands why we’re fighting.
“But for us to end violence against women, we have to stop talking to ourselves,” she continued. “This time next year, let’s have this very beautiful breakfast with construction workers, bring in mechanics, bring in engineers and politicians from your state, people who do not understand what it is and drive it home. Until we drive it home, we will continue to talk to ourselves. Until we make every other man or woman who has no idea of why we fight and who think we’re just a bunch of crazy people with nothing to do, until we make them understand that your daughters, who you so dearly cherish, could be a possible victim, we will continue to talk to ourselves. It is time to start a revolution. Sexual and gender-based violence is not going away. Even if there’s a resolution in New York today, we will still see it. It’s time to step out of our space and engage with new faces.”
Gbowee spoke of meeting with male leaders in media and politics and changing their minds. She said all women, regardless of their political beliefs, also need to communicate better with each other.
“I cannot do this work if I have hate in my heart for any human being,” Gbowee said while sharing a personal story. “We need, as women, regardless of where we find ourselves, to dialogue.”
It can and should start locally. “Take one girl in your community and mentor her. You will be helping the world.”
That one girl could be the one in three.
“To end violence against women, we need to make the message simple and clear, leave out all the jargon,” Gbowee said. “It’s not statistics and it’s not numbers — these are individuals. There are families in mourning. Every time there is talk of sexual and gender-based violence, they are not numbers or statistics. They’re our daughters and sisters and one who could become the first president of this great nation.”
— Ryan T. Blystone